The art of ski jump maintenance at Howelsen Hill
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The ski jumps at Howelsen Hill are an iconic Steamboat Springs sight. What few people realize is the amount of work that goes into maintaining the massive jumps.
A small group of people in the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club dedicates up to 20 hours a week each to setting up and sustaining the snow on the jumps all winter.
“Zen and the art of ski jump maintenance. There’s a lot to it and it’s a labor-intensive job,” said Todd Wilson, SSWSC ski jump facility manager. “It makes it worth it. It’s pretty fun.”
The first thing that gets done is getting snow on the jumps. The plastic on two of the seven jumps, which allows skiers to jump in the summer, is slippery, so snow ripples down the surface and eventually slides to the bottom. Meanwhile, a winter-only, or grass jump, holds snow on its own.
A massive series of nets must be placed down in order to keep the fluffy stuff on the jumps. However, they have to go on top of the dry plastic. As of Halloween afternoon, the jumps were covered in inches of snow that needed to be removed.
“Winter kind of made a surprise appearance. We were shoveling snow off last week, so we could finish jumping,” Wilson said. “Our goal as a program is to generally make the transition from plastic jumping to snow jumping as short as possible. … Two to three weeks is kind of acceptable.”
That transition starts now. A few men started clearing the base of the ramps on Thursday, Oct. 31, ahead of a massive effort planned for Friday.
Fifty or so athletes and coaches will take to the jumps with shovels to clear the jumps. Wilson hopes the sunny weekend will dry out the plastic so they can lay the nets Monday. Starting at the top of the hill and working their way down, laying the nets can take about three hours with the right amount of hands.
A week later, an even bigger group will take on another daunting task.
“We will bring all of our members, parents, sisters, brothers, grandparents, dogs, cats, anybody we can get,” Wilson said. “We will make a big pile of man-made snow at the top of the jump, and we send it down a shoot system and we snow the in-run in one day.”
The jumps will get filled with man-made snow as well and then get packed down and groomed. Making the landing slope as smooth as possible is imperative. As they land on the slope, skiers are traveling so fast, the tiniest bump could send them toppling.
“We till it and make it as smooth a surface as we can. We even finer tune it with skis and rakes and shovels and filling in any little holes,” Wilson said. “Our goal is to have a perfectly smooth two grade, no bumps surface. … The better job we do, the safer it is.”
The in-runs, where jumpers gather speed, also require hours of work before they are ready for winter use. As visible in summer, or with little snow, there are wooden slats up the length of the in-run. With snow packed to the brim of those, it forms the perfect curve to align with the jump.
After making it perfectly smooth, a track cutter cuts parallel lines into the in-run. Those soft slits are then watered down and frozen over to form hard tracks.
“From then on, anytime it snows, we have to manually take it away,” Wilson said.
Of course, throughout the season, snow will fall on top of the jumps and the in-runs, forcing more maintenance.
Every time it snows, the new layer needs to be packed in, or taken off. Even the outrun, the flat surface beyond the landing slope, needs to be regularly groomed to allow plenty of room for jumpers to slow their speed.
“We have to maintain a certain grade. It can build up for a little while, but then we have to go up and doze it off,” Wilson said. “It’s basically seven giant sidewalks or roadways we have to keep clear all winter long.”
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